Karen Keys-Gamarra admits to calling people “retarded”
Parents question her role as guardian ad litem, seek resignation
UPDATE 2:27 PM: Karen Keys-Gamarra admits she was the one who said: “We cannot be this retarded.” She said she apologizes and seeks the “forgiveness” of the community. Updated.
FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — Not long after the Fairfax County school board passed a resolution for “inclusive” learning at its regular meeting yesterday, the board struggled with a parliamentary question and a member of the school board had a “hot mic” moment, caught on videotape saying, “We cannot be this retarded.”
Parents gasped, appalled as they watched the proceedings at home and in their seats at Luther Jackson Middle School.
The next day, Fairfax County Public Schools told me to contact individual school board members, saying oddly they didn’t respond for the board. From clues in the video, parents were left wondering if it was a frustrated Karen Keys-Gamarra dropping the slur or perhaps Stella Pekarsky. None of the board’s 12 Democratic board members immediately returned requests for comment.
Special education advocate Deb Tisler, who had been targeted with litigation by Fairfax County lawyers for her advocacy, told me: “How can a school board member throw such disrespect to the disabled community by using the R-word? It’s obvious why the school board member and her comrades allow the law firms to bully parents of students with disabilities and students with disabilities. It’s also another reason why they have allowed the hijacking of taxpayer funds for services by the Fairfax County Public Schools special education central office team and law firms.”
She punctuated her thoughts with an angry emoji: 😡
The full video shows how the school board had just abruptly interrupted a speaker who was raising concerns about anti-semitism. As the chair of the board, Rachna Sizemore-Heizer struggled to resolve a parliamentary procedure, the board member grumbled about people as “retarded,” the comment caught on her microphone.
By 1:30 p.m. the next day, none of the 12 school board members had still taken responsibility. So much for teaching children to be upstanders. It was more hypocrisy from a school board that seemed most interested in protecting its political jobs.
Finally, at 2:27 PM, Keys-Gamarra responded to my query to the Fairfax County Public Schools public affairs office and admitted she was the one who made the statement.
Last night during our October 20, 2022 Fairfax County School Board meeting, I said something that I deeply regret. While I did not intend an offensive word to refer to any particular person or the parent community, I did insult my fellow school board members, and in turn, offended members of the community. I thought the board should allow a parent to finish her point and was frustrated with the outcome.
I know that word has historically been used to ridicule and demean others in ways that run counter to my beliefs and the work I’ve championed as a School Board member.
I deeply apologize for my words because that’s not what is in my heart. I have reached out to my colleagues on the board to ask for their forgiveness, too. I can only hope that the community will reflect on my entire body of work and find a way to forgive my lapse at that moment.
Karen Keys-Gamarra, At-Large Member
Fairfax County Public School Board
Among parents and community members frustrated by two years of callous behavior by school board members, the apology wasn’t enough.
One Twitter user said: Keys-Gamarra “must resign.”
In her statement, Keys-Gamarra said that she hoped the community would “reflect on my entire body of work and find a way to forgive my lapse at that moment.”
Tisler, the special-ed advocate, wasn’t in the mood for “forgiveness.” She had been battling Fairfax County officials for years, only to fight in court — and finally win. She responded to Keys-Gamarra statement, saying, “What entire body of work? Restraint? Seclusion? Retaliation? Illiteracy? Negligence? Suicide.”
One of the issues that concerns Tisler is that Keys-Gamarra is an attorney with a special role as a guardian ad litem, which means “guardian for the suit” in Latin. In that role, she is an "attorney appointed by a judge to “assist the court in determining the circumstances of a matter before the court,” typically involving children. The state of Virginia notes: “It is the responsibility of the guardian ad litem to provide independent recommendations to the court about the client’s best interests, which can be different from advocating for what the client wants…”
The role of guardian ad litems emerged earlier this month in a debate that Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton had with Republican contender Hung Cao for the 11th congressional seat. In the debate, Wexton supported school districts keeping secrets about the gender pronouns and bathroom and locker room use of children from their parents, because she noted that as a guardian ad litem herself she had observed “parents who abuse their children.”
Considering that sensitive role with vulnerable children, Tisler said: “It’s time to petition the Virginia Supreme Court for Karen Keys-Gamarra’s removal as guardian ad litem.”
As most people know, “retarded” is now a callous slur for people with cognitive challenges. On behalf of Special Olympics Virginia, which provides support and opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities, Holly Claytor , vice president of communications and development, said:
We certainly are disappointed by Ms. Keys-Gamarra’s remark, and see this as an opportunity to remind her and others about our mission to build more inclusive communities; communities where everyone is valued and respected. We encourage Ms. Keys-Gamarra to join us at an upcoming Unified Champion Schools event in Fairfax where we teach, through sports, how we can all be positive agents of change.
This moment provides us an opportunity to learn about a community that some describe as “neurodivergent” in the educational context. You can learn more about Special Olympics Virginia at this link: https://www.specialolympicsva.org.
Watch the full meeting here: